Exploration of the Government Sector—National Postdoctoral Appreciation Week

By Rachel Woodson posted 09-20-2012 17:01


This is the second of three blogs that the SOT Postdoctoral Assembly (PDA) is posting in recognition of National Postdoctoral Appreciation Week.

Gwendolyn Louis is a postdoctoral fellow in the Toxicity Assessment Division at the United States Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA). She uses a rodent model to study the impact of environmental chemicals on the endocrine system, including reproductive functioning of the hypothalamic-pituitary-gonadal axes.

Exploration of the Government Sector

I am starting my third year as a postdoctoral fellow at the US EPA located in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina. My major reasons for choosing this postdoc were (1) to gain experience in a different sector that will hopefully be a good stepping stone to the industrial world and (2) to acquire expertise in a field that I have always dreamed of working in, but did not have the chance to dabble in during graduate school.

Having worked in academic research for nine years in Boston and in Michigan, I had a pretty good feel for how things worked in academia. Government jobs were an unexplored area to me, as was living in the warm southern states. So, switching to the government sector and moving to North Carolina was a dramatic change from day one. For one thing, I moved in mid-August, so it was hot. But it was great to get away from the single-digit, blizzard-filled winters of the north. Secondly, the type of research was different. What do I mean? The actual lab itself with the pipettes, tubes, and equipment in it were all familiar (with maybe the exception of the fancy, high-tech equipment I now had at my fingertips), but the research here is more applied and public health related. In the past, my research in academia was more basic, cutting-edge research. “This protein involved in cancer is very interesting because of XYZ. Let’s study it and see what it does.” This was fulfilling because I was studying something new and fascinating. 

My research now is mainly based on the goals of the program office and addressing the public’s concerns about environmental issues. My current work may directly impact people’s lives, which also makes this work rewarding, but in a different sense. The structure of my current lab is different in that each lab consists of three to four individuals, but several labs in a branch work closely together and collaborate routinely. I belong to a small branch of four investigators, who report to the branch chief, who reports to a division head, who reports to a program director, and so on. The agency’s structure is more complex than the academic labs that I was accustomed to that had 10+ members (including postdocs, grad students, medical fellows, etc.), who belonged to one department, and reported to one principle investigator. The benefit of the large trickle down structure of the agency makes it easy for us to interact and collaborate with scientists in various fields who have an array of skills.

Of course, there are the infamous government bureaucracies, to which I was oblivious before I started, so it was surprising to me. At the start of my postdoctoral career, I attended many training sessions (most required, some optional) for lab safety, environmental safety, radiation safety, quality assurance (QA), voicemail, animal handling, etc., not to mention the annual re-certifications that needed to be completed. Along those lines, the formalities required for ordering lab supplies, for submitting abstracts or manuscripts, or for proper QA of records can be daunting. But from keeping these careful records, I feel I have become a better, more thorough, and more organized scientist. 

On a side note, the national economy and political environments naturally impact the US EPA with it being a government agency. This, in turn, may or may not affect postdoctoral fellows.There are different types of postdoctoral positions at the US EPA that vary depending on the source of funding and each has their own requirements. As a contractor, I am exempt from some technical meetings, yearly evaluations, and other official procedures.

In this current position, I have gained much insight into the workings of research in the government and more information about industrial jobs. In attending career seminars offered on-site and speaking with local scientists, I have learned the steps that I need to take to reach my next destination. I have acquired many new skill and knowledge sets that will hopefully be beneficial for my near future. I have learned to effectively plan my own experiments, to grow as an individual researcher, and to maintain balance with work and life. I am glad that I decided to explore new geographical regions, new fields of research, and a new sector of science. You never know what valuable information you may learn from these new experiences.